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Honing the Art and Science of Fingerprinting

Person having fingers scanned on the fingerprint scannerFebruary 4, 2010— Rania is a 30-something woman from Morocco traveling to visit her cousins in Brooklyn—her first visit to the United States. After a 13-hour flight, she arrives at JFK Airport, a bit nervous about the unfamiliar surroundings and her inability to speak English.

She shuffles off the airplane, passes through the jet bridge, and falls in line at customs, where she watches anxiously as each passenger ahead of her hands over a passport to a Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agent. Her intimidation grows upon seeing each passenger caress a small, green-lit machine, similar to a credit card reader.

To the international traveler who frequents the United States, the act of being fingerprinted is unremarkable. Sure, some may find it off-putting, but most recognize that the minor inconvenience serves everyone’s security. In many parts of the world, however, getting fingerprinted is something that only happens to criminals.

Once Rania reaches the front of the line, the fingerprint reader itself presents additional complications. Press too hard, and the print is deformed. Press too softly, and it’s illegible. Roll your fingers while they’re bunched together, and you smudge the print. Remove them too soon, and the reader doesn’t have sufficient time to work.

Communicating such detailed instructions to a native English speaker is difficult enough. Now try explaining all this to Rania.

“When dealing with the mass of humanity that comes into the country every day, you have to consider culture,” says Arun Vemury, a biometrics program manager in the Human Factors/Behavioral Sciences Division of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). Put another way, in welcoming people such as Rania, multicultural sensitivity must be considered alongside technical exactitude.

In sum, the daily fingerprinting of hundreds of thousands of people must occur expeditiously without sacrificing accuracy or inviting a culture clash. This delicate balance makes biometrics—the study of unique physical or behavioral characteristics—both a science and an art.

To address these issues, Vemury, together with colleagues from S&T and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), has broadened his focus beyond the traditional biometric fields of hardware and engineering. Perhaps the best example of this more holistic approach comes from a battery of tests developed by NIST’s biometrics usability team.

  • The objective: To perfect the user-friendliness of fingerprint technologies and the environmental circumstances surrounding their use.
  • The means: Pilot tests in Japan, Korea, China and Lebanon.
  • The conclusion: The use of symbols to convey instructions from start to finish best transcends sociolinguistic barriers.

Such symbols now populate posters and signage, placed throughout international airports.

But what about that technical exactitude? Are we putting cultural sensitivity above quality?

Not at all, says Vermury. In fact, the Department is transitioning from taking two fingerprints (your index fingers) to 10 (four prints from each hand at once, followed by each thumb). These additional records greatly augment the government’s ability to prevent criminals and immigration violators from entering the country.

What’s more, the prints now adhere to uniform standards, the result of a partnership among the FBI and the Departments of Defense (DOD), State and Homeland Security. Just a few years ago, when the Pentagon was rounding up fingerprints in Afghanistan and Iraq, the lack of such standardization impeded interagency information sharing on potentially dangerous individuals. Now, thanks to research funded chiefly by S&T, these technically robust standards have transformed the field.

“Standards help knit together the departments of the federal government into a cohesive whole,” observes Bert Coursey, S&T’s standards executive, who leads a team of 13 scientists and engineers in these efforts. In biometrics, this means increasing our chances of catching the bad guys while making our ports of entry more hospitable to legitimate foreign travelers.

Rania is already on her way to meet her family at baggage claim. The ease of getting through customs has lessened her initial trepidation, and so far, her fears about traveling to an unfamiliar place seem unfounded.

To request more information about this story, please e-mail st.snapshots@hq.dhs.gov.

Last Updated: 01/10/2023
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